Saturday’s graduation of 40 pioneer medical students at Gulu University has been billed as one of the key success stories of the eight-year-old institution.
The ushering of 40 doctors into the public, especially in Gulu, the former epicentre of the northern conflict, is also being clothed by so much excitement and could remain the centre of attention on Saturday as the university conducts its 5th graduation ceremony.
This in part is informed by the anticipation of how much difference 40 doctors could make for Uganda which lacks skilled medical workers.
Residents are now attempting to resettle in their original homes after spending nearly two decades in camps, but lack of health facilities and skilled medical personnel has already been cited as a key hindrance to a speedy resettlement and recovery programme.
Based on the 2002 population Census, Kitgum District for instance had a projected population of 331,344 in 2007, with 22 government-owned health units.
However the district to date has only one doctor, Alex Layoo, who is the medical superintendent of Kitgum Hospital.
“I work as the medical superintendent, do all the operations and also head all the departments because there are no doctors,” Dr Layoo said recently in an interview.
Kitgum’s experience offers an eloquent illustration of what goes on in many districts in northern Uganda. This is why seeing 40 doctors based in the region graduate, is probably the best gift for the recuperating region.
But behind the excitement lies an uncomfortable question of how many of these graduates will choose to serve the hapless population in the north.
Prof. Emilio Ovuga, the dean Faculty of Medicine, says the students have already been of great help to the population in Acholi and Lango sub-regions.
“From their fouth year, the medical students have been spending up to five weeks every semester in community outreach programmes. Once they are in these health centres, the population receives improved service delivery,” Prof. Ovuga told Daily Monitor yesterday. The students outreach programme has been covering Oyam, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts with financial support from the Italian Cooperation.
But the Professor fears that the graduates might go elsewhere to look for greener pastures unless the government urgently develops a policy of recruiting and retaining them.
He observed that most of the hospitals in the region are in a sorry state and lack facilities, a problem that makes it hard to attract more doctors in the region.
“If the hospital doesn’t have facilities, they will feel under utilised, so they will not stay,” he added.
Other than Gulu Referral Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital Lacor, which are both teaching facilities for the Faculty of Medicine, there are less than six doctors across the rest of the districts in Acholi sub-region.
In many northern Uganda districts, the doctor-patient ratio is 1: 1,000. The national doctor-patient ratio is 1: 24,000, according to a 2008 World Health Organization report. Up to 1,050 students are set to graduate tomorrow up from last year’s 866. Chancellor Martin Aliker is expected to preside over the function.